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How Long Does It Take To Get Unemployment?

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In a Nutshell

The “ins and outs” of the unemployment application process depends upon the state in which you live. But regardless, if you need unemployment compensation, make sure to file your unemployment claim (sometimes called a “UI claim”) as soon as possible after losing your job. That way, your new claim will be placed into the review queue quickly, which means that you’ll receive your benefits quicker than you would otherwise.

Written by Natasha Wiebusch, J.D.
Updated July 19, 2021

Over the last year, states have received a record number of claims for unemployment benefits. These soaring numbers have occurred in response to COVID-19-related layoffs and furloughs.This sudden increase in claims has caused many state unemployment offices to temporarily change their practices and procedures.

The federal government has also responded by passing legislation to expand unemployment benefits and ease eligibility requirements for special populations. Examples include people who wouldn’t usually qualify for unemployment benefits due to being self-employed. This legislation created programs like the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program and the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) program.

These temporary changes to unemployment impact not only eligibility, but also other administrative tasks that claimants would usually be responsible for. One of the most pressing questions that unemployment claimants ask is when they’ll receive their first unemployment check. The answer to this question usually depends on the state, but the pandemic has caused many states to change first payment policies as well.

Receiving Your First Unemployment Check

Filing For Unemployment

The “ins and outs” of the unemployment application process depends upon the state in which you live. But regardless, if you need unemployment compensation, make sure to file your unemployment claim (sometimes called a “UI claim”) as soon as possible after losing your job. That way, your new claim will be placed into the review queue quickly, which means that you’ll receive your benefits quicker than you would otherwise.

In many states, you can file your claim for unemployment insurance online. Many states now have UI online portals where you can apply by creating an online account. This online account will help you keep track of your application status and allow you to follow up on any paperwork requests. Are you unsure of how to apply in your state? The U.S. Department of Labor has a page that lists contact information for each state’s unemployment office. It will also show if your state has a UI online portal. 

When you file your unemployment claim, the unemployment office will review your application to determine whether you qualify for benefits. Whether you qualify will generally depend on three things: the length of time you were employed prior to losing your job, how much money you earned, and why your employment ended. If you applied through a UI online portal, updates for your claim likely won’t come via regular mail, but will rather show up online. It’s important to be clear about where your updates will post because deadlines for appealing a denial of benefits are both short and very strict. Be sure to check your UI online account regularly as you wait for updates.

Once the state determines that you’re eligible for unemployment benefits, it’ll  determine what your weekly benefit amount will be. Your work history, full-time or part-time employment status, and qualifications for pandemic-related assistance will impact the benefits amount that you’re entitled to. 

Waiting Period

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, many states enforced a waiting period between when individuals applied for unemployment and when they could receive their first unemployment check. This waiting period would usually start during the first week of eligibility and would last one week before an applicant could receive that first payment.

For example, California’s Employment Development Department (EDD) used to require a one-week waiting period between losing a job and receiving an initial benefit payment. The California EDD, along with many other states, has waived this waiting period due to the coronavirus pandemic. Also, like many other state agencies, the EDD set up a FAQ page to help California residents navigate its adjusted claims and certification procedures.

PTO Pay-Out

If you lose your job and your employer gives you money to compensate you for your paid time off, your unemployment benefit should begin after any outstanding PTO is paid out. For example, if you earned two week’s PTO and then got laid off, your job might pay you for those two weeks. Once those two weeks are up, you would start your unemployment insurance waiting period, if applicable. Then you would receive your first unemployment check.

Whether you have saved up PTO will depend on your employer and their PTO policies. For example, some employers require an employee to work for at least one year before they start to earn PTO.

Direct Deposit Or Debit Card?

Different states provide benefit payments differently. Some states, like Illinois, let claimants set up direct deposit to receive their regular unemployment benefits in their personal accounts. The California EDD, on the other hand, provides benefit recipients with a debit card that’s linked to an account where funds are deposited. This isn’t a normal debit card because it is not linked to a personal account.

You might have the option of receiving your unemployment payments via direct deposit or debit card. If so, be aware that mixing your weekly benefits with your other money can make it available to creditors.

Once you’re eligible for unemployment, you should expect to see funds transferred to your account within a few business days.

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Unemployment Eligibility

General Unemployment Requirements

As mentioned above, to be eligible for regular unemployment benefits you must meet the requirements mandated by the state in which you live. States often require a “base period.” A base period is a minimum time period that you must work in the state to become eligible for unemployment benefits. The minimum base period is usually 12 of the last 15 months or four of the last five quarters. States also require that you earn a certain amount of money during that time to qualify.

Requirements for regular unemployment benefits may not be the same as the requirements set up for PUA or PEUC payments. This particularly applies if you had a unique employment situation before the pandemic.

Eligible Unemployment Compensation Recipients Must Certify Regularly

Once the unemployment agency approves your claim, you’ll continue to file paperwork to maintain your eligibility and certify your unemployed status. So, when you start receiving payments, you’ll have to regularly certify that you’re not working. You’ll also certify that you’re looking for work. You’ll do this every week or every other week.

The state can also randomly audit your unemployment claims to make sure that you’re complying with the rules. If you’re audited, you might have to show proof that you searched for work. Unemployment offices call these “work searches.” A work search could be attending networking events, participating in interviews, and sending out your resume to places that were hiring. It’s extremely important that you are honest every time you recertify your unemployment or you could lose your benefits eligibility and face other negative consequences.

Many States Have Suspended Work Searches

Although work search requirements are common, many states have suspended them due to the coronavirus pandemic. But because businesses in many states are opening back up, it’s important to check with your specific state’s labor office to make sure job-search requirements are still suspended.

Lastly, no unemployment insurance program is permanent. Unemployment compensation is intended to be a temporary solution for those looking for work, so states also limit how long someone can receive unemployment benefits throughout a specific year. Both the weekly benefit amount and the amount of time that you’ll remain eligible to receive benefits will depend on the state.  If you’re currently receiving payments through the PUA or PEUC programs, you’ll be subject to unique requirements. The PUA and PEUC programs not only made qualifying for unemployment easier, but they also increased the number of weeks unemployment was available for workers and self-employed individuals. Unfortunately, many of those extensions have now expired.

Unemployment benefits eligibility is very state-specific. Because of this, it’s best to check your state’s laws and regulations. This will help you ensure that you’re following the rules to maintain your eligibility. If you need more information about eligibility in your state, contact your state’s unemployment office.

Let’s Summarize...

Unemployment is paid to people who lose their job through no fault of their own. Regular unemployment is a temporary solution. Weekly benefits have been expanded due to the coronavirus pandemic. This temporary version of pandemic unemployment assistance won’t be permanent. 

Each state is treating this new phase of the pandemic differently. So, if you’re considering applying for unemployment, remember that some, but not all, states still have temporary measures in place for receiving unemployment and maintaining eligibility.

Are you out of work or struggling with self-employment? You may be able to apply for unemployment through your state’s UI online portal. And, if you need help understanding how unemployment assistance works, visit your state’s unemployment office website. If you’re not finding the information you need, you can also contact your elected officials. 

For information specific to the coronavirus pandemic, visit the U.S. Department of Labor’s coronavirus resource page at

Written By:

Natasha Wiebusch, J.D.


Natasha started her career as a lawyer representing labor unions and other investors in multi-state class action lawsuits. Passionate about the civil rights elements of her cases, she moved into practicing employment law to represent employees against discrimination of various ki... read more about Natasha Wiebusch, J.D.

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